In many scientific communities, student teams are an underrated resource. Joining a team working towards a goal while in college, whether racing a solar car or digging a fish pond in Africa, is a great way to improve technical and project skills while improving communication and teamwork. The aerospace industry began to take advantage of these strengths, with student teams developing exciting projects around the world. A recent article from students at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands – a hexapod robot called Lunar Zebro with unique wheels.
Zebro, short for ‘zes-benige robot’, which means hexapod in Dutch, was originally developed in 2013 as a concept for student work. Originally intended for terrestrial applications, the group of more than 120 students over the past five years has decided to develop Lunar Zebra as well, with the express intention of being the first European rover to land on the lunar surface.
To navigate such rough terrain, the rover uses a unique motion system originally designed as a RHex project at the University of Pennsylvania. These wheels enable a rover the size of an A4 paper to traverse larger obstacles than comparable wheeled rovers.
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Even with this small size, the rover can still fit a decent number of sensors on its platform, including two custom cameras and a radiation sensor. Its original mission was to remain operational on the moon and continue to communicate with the TU Delft ground station for 1/2 lunar day (or 14 Earth days), while it can harvest energy from sunlight.
Ensuring that small rovers can meet the challenges of the moon is a tall order. The team has conducted field tests in some of the harshest environments on Earth, including lava tubes in Iceland and slopes in the Alps. But the space presents more challenges, including persistent radiation and extreme temperature fluctuations, which the team believes the rover can overcome in its current configuration.
In this configuration, the rover can connect to any country’s lunar lander, although the student body does not appear to have chosen a specific lander to ride on. They also didn’t choose a timeline for when to release. But that hasn’t stopped them from already planning the next phase.
This phase will include taking advantage of one of the advantages of the Lunar Zebro’s small size – relatively low manufacturing costs. This means someone can make more of them – and then connect them into a swarm. The TU Delft team isn’t the only robotics team with this idea, but the Lunar Zebro project seems like a good platform. Linking together multiple small robotic systems can provide more insight than any single rover alone can provide.
But in order to continue that part of the mission, the team first had to complete their first lunar mission. There, the strengths of the student management team come into focus. They will have a steady stream of students willing to participate in the project, which itself enhances TU Delft’s reputation as a university where students can pursue such advanced projects. However, these students also take turns leaving after a certain period of time. Some go on to create their own space-related companies, but more importantly, it allows the university itself to provide students with valuable experience participating in and even leading technology projects. One day they could even say they worked on a lunar rover – which is cool in itself.
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Lunar Zebra being tested.
Credit – Delft University of Technology